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Feminine Mystiquers | The Nation

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Feminine Mystiquers

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For Danielle Crittenden, the "click" came when she was going to play tennis with her husband and a couple of acquaintances. She left her racket on one side of the court. When she went to get it, she noticed her husband had left his too, so she picked it up. When she got back to the group, one woman said, "Oh darn, I was going to congratulate you for not bringing it."

About the Author

Kim Phillips-Fein
Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She...

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Crittenden suddenly realized that her most casual interaction with her husband might be criticized by an outsider who, stoked with feminist nostrums, would find lingering female subservience in the most innocent acts. "What sort of behavior would I be capable of next? Fetching him his newspaper and slippers? Having a chilled martini ready for him when he came home from work?" And so she set out to write What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, an antifeminist tract for the nineties. Its release date neatly coincided with Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, a similar tale of a young girl coming of age in this crazy postfeminist world.

It's more than a little disingenuous for Crittenden to present herself as being prompted into reaction by a harmless conversation over tennis. A seasoned journalist and founder of the right-wing Independent Women's Forum publication The Women's Quarterly, she's certainly no stranger to antifeminism. Nor is 23-year-old Wendy Shalit, whose stream-of-consciousness ramblings on boyfriends, college and virginity have been gussied up into a book by which Shalit herself will certainly be embarrassed in a few years; she's a frequent writer for conservative journals like Commentary. Together with other self-styled feminists like Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Christina Hoff Sommers, the two represent an odd new trend in right-wing thinking: The antifeminist appeal is today being made on grounds of women's well-being and satisfaction, in language that explicitly recalls Betty Friedan.

Contributing to one's eerie sense that all conservative books just might emanate from the same few ghostwriters, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us and A Return to Modesty are remarkably similar, both in their anecdotal style and in their obsessions. Both writers get frantic over coed bathrooms (Shalit, one of whose first big articles for Commentary was titled "A Ladies' Room of One's Own," has built her entire career on this unpromising foundation). Both note how revealing it is that we're "flocking to Jane Austen movies." Both feel obliged to establish their sympathies with mainstream economics. Shalit refers to her Chicago-school economist father, and Crittenden uses market metaphors to talk about sex: "When something becomes widely and cheaply available, its value usually goes down too."

Most important, both books are modeled on The Feminine Mystique--Crittenden's self-consciously, Shalit's less so. Like Betty Friedan, both use women's magazines, those hoary rags devoted to shilling skin creams and facial masks, to gain some insight into the female psyche. But unlike Friedan, neither writer treats Cosmopolitan, Glamour or Redbook with any hint of irony or sense of disjuncture between the claims of the magazines and real women's lives. For instance, they find that women are horribly anxious about their looks and their relationships with men. According to Cosmo? You don't say!

But the effort to rewrite The Feminine Mystique for the postfeminist nineties goes well beyond a few quotes from women's magazines. Inverting Friedan's famous formulation, both writers argue that "while we now recognize that women are human, we blind ourselves to the fact that we are also women," as Crittenden puts it. Feminism's fatal flaw, they say, is that it taught women to ignore their "fundamental female desires" for husband, home and family. A quarter-century after second-wave feminism, "the modern woman" is miserable and confused. Professional success doesn't make her happy, and her newfound independence makes it impossible for her to get what she really wants: a good husband and children. To find and keep husbands, women must stop having sex outside marriage, and they must stop deceiving themselves about wanting a job. Only then will men treat them as ladies, and only then will they be able to have stable homes. If Friedan thought women were languishing in suburban kitchens, Shalit and Crittenden think they are frustrated and desperate in office towers. What modern women really want, as Shalit puts it, is "our 'feminine mystique' back."

Although both writers posit basic, immutable differences between men and women, their claims of female difference don't hinge on female ineptitude. Both take it for granted that women can become lawyers and doctors and philosophy professors, excel in school, do math. (Construction jobs don't come up, given the authors' upper-middle-class milieu.) For Shalit, the realization of basic female difference came at college. When she was growing up, her beloved father--her mother isn't mentioned--never treated her differently because she was a girl. "When I returned home from the prom, after all, I could discuss anything I chose with my father." But then Shalit got to Williams College. She noticed the anorexic girls, stick-thin and exhausted. She observed protests against date rape. She listened to her friends complain about their boyfriends. And finally, she decided that the conservatives should "take the claims of the feminists seriously."

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